Self-discovery — often described as the process of finding oneself and gathering valuable insight into one’s character — is one of the biggest challenges anyone can face. Although it provides us with understanding regarding our values, needs, and wants, it can be equal parts painful and frustrating.
Fortunately, throughout the years, many incredible movies have showcased that those challenges are often the most enriching and that examining our own behavior and making changes to be better is essential for character development. No matter which stage in life one is in, there is a wide range of films, from Wild to Frances Ha, that are guaranteed to bring comfort and solace. Down below, we look back at the best movies about self-discovery that are assuredly worth the watch.
12 ‘Wild’ (2014)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
2014’s biographical adventure drama starring Reese Witherspoon, directed by Jean-Marce Vallée, and based on the 2012 memoir by Cheryl Strayed, depicts a woman driven to the edge due to the unfolding of deeply tragic events in her life. She decides to put her life back together again by setting out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
Inspired by an outstanding true story, Wild is about the obstacles that stand in our way and our demeanor towards them. Nailing a depiction of survival in the wilderness and highlighting the importance of bringing out the best in yourself, this 2014 feature provides audiences with insight into healing from traumatic experiences and is undoubtedly worth checking.
- Release Date
- January 16, 2014
- Jean-Marc Vallee
11 ‘Into the Wild’ (2007)
Director: Sean Penn
Directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild is based on a biography written by Jon Krakauer and first published in 1996. In the film, a young man (Emile Hirsch) leaves his middle-class life in pursuit of freedom, giving up his home, family, and possessions after graduating from Emory University.
This enthralling man vs. nature film depicts the unfortunately tragic but real events of Christopher McCandless‘s life, and it does so in a way that keeps audiences invested and fully immersed. By illustrating how venturing off into nature and connecting with wildlife often helps people find a sense of true meaning in life, Into the Wild makes for a thoughtful movie that sends out a powerful message about innocence, isolation, risk, and self-reliance.
into the wild
- Release Date
- September 11, 2007
10 ‘Nomadland’ (2020)
Director: Chlóe Zhao
2021’s Best Picture Academy-Award winner, Nomadland by Chloé Zhao is a thoughtful meditation on grief and seclusion; it portrays the life of a woman (the talented Frances McDormand in one of her three Oscar-winning performances) in her 60s who, in the aftermath of losing everything in the Great Recession, decides to embark on a life-altering journey through the American West.
Based on Jessica Bruder‘s 2017 book of the same name, Nomadland offers viewers plenty of food for thought as it draws inspiration from several true stories. In addition to the top-notch performance and beautiful visuals, Zhao’s quiet but moving film highlights that there is no such thing as a “late” blooming, self-discovering, and character development.
- Release Date
- January 29, 2021
- Chloé Zhao
- Frances McDormand , Gay DeForest , Patricia Grier , Linda May , Angela Reyes , Carl R. Hughes
9 ‘Her’ (2013)
Director: Spike Jonze
In this Joaquin Phoenix-led Spike Jonze movie set in a beautiful, futuristic, pastel-colored world, viewers get a glimpse into the life of lonely Theodore, a heartbroken writer who finds himself struggling with his monotonous daily basis in the aftermath of a painful divorce. That is, of course, until he meets Samantha, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Making for the perfect double feature to watch with Sofia Coppola‘s Lost in Translation, which is also a movie about self-discovery, Her is a compelling slice-of-life story that examines humanity’s relationship with technology and its consequences. Furthermore, one of the film’s strongest assets is how it provides audiences with a thoughtful message about self-improvement and encourages human connection.
8 ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (2013)
Director: Ben Stiller
Directed, produced, and starring Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a feel-good movie that tells the story of an ordinary man whose head is constantly in the clouds, fantasizing about being a navy commander, a skilled surgeon, and a military captain. When both Walter and a colleague are on the verge of losing their jobs, he decides to embark on a peculiarly extraordinary adventure.
Based on the short story of the same name by James Thurber in The New Yorker, this engaging and highly creative Stiller film analyzes the differences between a regular life that leans towards escapism versus an action-driven, successful one. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shines a light on finding oneself and actually taking action to fulfill one’s dreams and ambitions.
the secret life of walter mitty
- Release Date
- December 18, 2013
7 ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ (2007)
Director: Wes Anderson
Set in the backdrop of the stunning Indian countryside, Wes Anderson‘s affecting The Darjeeling Limited centers on three estranged brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, as they reunite for a train trip across India in the aftermath of their father’s death.
As expected (considering the filmmaker’s impeccable body of work), this quirky Wes Anderson feature deals with grief, miscommunication, family, and human connection, successfully sending a poignant message about these themes. Additionally, The Darjeeling Limited illustrates the bumpy road of healing and self-enlightenment while offering audiences a captivating — at times even touching — self-aware satire with memorable characters at its center. It is the perfect pick for those who are looking for bittersweet, entertaining, and truly stylish drama.
6 ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)
Director: Sofia Coppola
It isn’t for no reason that this Sofia Coppola flick remains one of her most well-regarded works. With Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles, the 2003 movie depicts the meaningful bond between a faded movie star and a young woman who is stuck in an unhappy relationship as they cross paths in the city of lights, Tokyo.
Lost in Translation is a captivating exploration of alienation and loneliness and offers audiences an entertaining and thought-provoking story that many people can relate to. The film’s central theme is the feeling of being isolated, which is a universal sentiment that most people experience at least once in their lives. Additionally, Coppola’s visually striking film highlights, like many other films on this list, the importance of human connection in our lives.
5 ‘Moonlight’ (2016)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Barry Jenkins‘ incredible directorial debut, which earned a few Oscar nods, tells the story of a young Black man (played by Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert, and Ashton Sanders) as he comes of age. It depicts three visceral phases in his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, highlighting his struggles with identity and sexuality.
Through the lead character’s captivating — though at times devastating — journey, the thoroughly moving Moonlight sheds light on the anxiety that comes with growing up and finding one’s place in the world, especially as a non-straight person of color. The way Jenkins’ movie was the first film with an entirely Black cast and the first with a gay main character to win the Best Picture Oscar makes it groundbreaking and certainly worth checking out.
- Release Date
- October 21, 2016
- Barry Jenkins
4 ‘Frances Ha’ (2012)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Barbie‘s highly praised director (and the mind behind the highest-grossing film of the year) before reaching stardom, this comedy-drama by talented filmmaker Noah Baumbach depicts an honest portrayal of an aspiring struggling dancer who finds herself working as an apprentice at a dance company. In the meantime, Frances attempts to chase her dreams, even if unable to afford a Brooklyn apartment on her own.
There are many great aspects of Baumbach’s truly genuine and humane black-and-white film, but its endearing depiction of close female relationships and the frustrating scuffle to find a sense of belonging for yourself somewhere in the world are certainly at the top of the list. All in all, Frances Ha is undoubtedly worth a look, especially if readers find themselves in a similar situation to its lead protagonist.
- Release Date
- May 17, 2013
- Noah Baumbach
3 ‘The Truman Show’ (1998)
Director: Peter Weir
Starring Jim Carrey in one of his most memorable roles, Peter Weir‘s mind-bending The Truman Show centers around an insurance sales assistant who discovers that his whole life is a reality TV show. As he becomes aware that there are hidden cameras and people watching his every move, Truman must face the truth and reclaim the life he once thought was his.
This psychological comedy-drama is one of the most celebrated movies to come out of the 1990s, and it is not hard to understand why. The Truman Show is a poignant satire that examines mass media manipulation, criticizing its power and influence on many’s lives. Additionally, Weir’s movie provides audiences with an intriguing, out-of-the-box tale revolving around self-discovery that ends on a satisfying note.
The Truman Show
- Release Date
- June 4, 1998
2 ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Last year’s Best Picture winner endures a beloved and acclaimed A24 movie with many still looking to watch it. Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh is a Chinese immigrant named Evelyn Wang who must enter the multiverse in order to stop her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) — an alternate version of her, that is — from annihilating her world.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an epic adventure that fully immerses audiences in its wild experience. Although it is hilarious (and just plain silly at times), the highly original film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheiner also counts on plenty of emotional moments, sending valuable messages on mother-daughter relationships, identity, and the importance of being in the present moment.
1 ‘The Worst Person in the World’ (2021)
Director: Joachim Trier
When it comes to movies about finding yourself, The Worst Person in the World assuredly fits the bill. This incredible realist piece of filmmaking by Joachim Trier narrates four years in the life of a young woman (Renate Reinsve) who navigates through her life, including hardship and heartbreak on a quest to find meaning.
Despite its memorable title, The Worst Person in the World isn’t actually about the worst person in the world — instead, it focuses on those who truly feel like they embody what it must mean to be such a thing. Trier’s heartfelt feature delves into the frustration that arises from learning in all areas of life, resulting in a deeply moving and mesmerizing experience that is guaranteed to provide consolation and understanding to audiences who are undergoing similar situations.
The Worst Person in the World
- Release Date
- July 8, 2021
- Joachim Trier
- Renate Reinsve , Anders Danielsen Lie , Herbert Nordrum
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